What’s wrong with this picture?

UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this telling picture from a recent United Methodist News Source story, and the way it captures the heart of the problem with the restructuring proposals coming out of the Call to Action (which I’ve critiqued here and for which I offered a different approach). The flip chart reads “Denominational Goal: 1. Stop Decline. 2. Encourage Growth.”

Now, I’m going to grant that there are times when we need to have strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth, and thinking and praying about planning about how to do those things is not wrong. It’s probably better described as the goal of this particular brainstorming session, but the title “denominational goal” is particularly telling in a Freudian sort of way.

That’s what we’re worried about.

And that’s what we’ve made our focus.

When I came to my current church, this is the exact question that was presented as the congregation’s central concern. We are losing members. We are not growing. Help us stop losing people and encourage growth. Of course in a way, that’s what needed to happen, and we measure our success in those efforts by counting how many people come in or out of the church. Fine.

But we did not develop a church growth strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth. We did one very simple, very difficult thing.

We refocused on our mission.

No numbers. No statistics.

We did our ministry, and let go of the numbers for a little bit.

The decline stopped almost immediately, because there was something about which people were passionate, and they wanted to be a part of it, so they stuck around. The growth is slow and patchy, I admit. But it’s there. Not because we have a goal to increase in number, but because we have a goal to be as faithful as we can be to our mission. Do you know what helped us do that? The strength and connection of the UMC denomination; consultants from the Annual Conference, resources from the Board of Discipleship, connecting back to mission through the Board of Global Missions, the list goes on and on. But that’s what kept us going: our mission.

It reminds me of a story entitled “Panic” in the fantastic book Friedman’s Fables. To paraphrase, a ring of dominoes finds itself in a pickle, as one by one, the dominoes fall. Each domino tries to hold its neighbor up, to stem the tide of crashing dominoes, but to no avail. Finally, one domino manages it; the crashing stops and the dominoes right themselves. The others ask how in the world that one domino was able to stay up, and it replies, “while you were all busy trying to keep others from falling, I just focused on keeping myself from going down.” This one domino held fast to its own strength, its own principle, rather than reacting to the instability around it.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we really tried to figure that out and commit to that? What’s a disciple? How do you “make” one? How do you know you’ve got one?

Instead, we are focused on stopping the crashing around us, on preserving our institution. Has survival of the institution become our denominational goal?

It seems to me that if we are so busy trying to save our (institutional) life, we are sure to lose it. Only when we are willing to die, really die, when we are ready to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, will we find our life saved and worth saving. Death is not a restructuring, and certainly not a consolidation of power. Death is a surrender, a release, a return to those things that have birthed us and carried us, a loss of self in the wholeness of God.

And if we can’t hear that story, today of all days… well, then perhaps we are already entombed.

18 thoughts on “What’s wrong with this picture?”

  1. I believe that, ironically, the Methodist Church will grow by doing what we have always done: by affirming the authority of scripture.

    How is it possible for a Church with declining membership to grow by doing what we have always done? The key is that we have been able to remain a faithful Church while other Churches have not. I think you will see an influx of alienated members of other denominations into the UMC in the next ten years as their denominations stray further and further from God.

    Staying committed to God’s Word should be the central concern. Growth will surely follow.

    1. Hi Rick, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I believe that the UMC, like all churches, needs to make a case for what they believe a faithful witness is. It’s not a given that people will simply flock to a church proclaiming the Gospel. We have to lift up why the Word matters, and why the presence of God transforms us and transforms the world. So yes, it is about faithfulness (although we won’t all agree on what faithfulness looks like), but it is faithfulness proclaimed with relevance. I think in a sense, this goes back to what I was saying about the mission of the UMC. If we are to make disciples, we should probably know what a disciple is and how we are formed. That is the subject of much prayerful discussion, I am sure!


  2. […] Becca Clark responds to a picture and a story about the Call to Action proposals coming before General Conference. Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreEmailRedditDiggStumbleUponTumblrPrintLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Call to Action, General Conference 2012 and tagged Call to Action, General Conference 2012, United Methodist Church. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  3. Great observations, and spot on analysis of CtA. Did you notice what else was wrong with the picture?

    “Strength of will”?!?!?

    “Heart is on growIng the church”?!?!?

    What if instead of our own will we focused on the strength of the Holy Spirit; a strength which, coincidentally, is made perfect in our weakness?

    What if instead of growing the church we had a heart for following Jesus, come what may, numerical growth or not?

    Thank you for a great post, Becca. May your tribe increase among us.

    1. Hi Billy,

      Thanks you! I was having a hard time reading that second part, which is why I didn’t mention it! I got “strength of will,” but couldn’t figure out “heart” mad make the next line make sense. Maybe because it doesn’t. “heart is on growing the church”? I’m not sure what that means. I hesitate to speculate because I don’t know the context, but it is odd.

      I love your questions about the strength of the Spirit and following Jesus. Amen and amen!

      Blessings to you as we live into a new day of following Jesus, wherever he leads,

  4. Mark 8:35–Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.

    We have been so desperate to save our (denominational / local church / personal identity) life that we’ve just never noticed that it is exactly that desperation that is killing us. We’ve been so focused on our fear that we’ve given up on ever giving ourselves away for the gospel.

  5. Thank you for this post — I came to it through Ken Hagler, my youth pastor from many years ago. I am from Georgia but I work and live now in Guatemala, participating and trying to understand the Christian community here in this town where I am. Thanks for this clarifying post!

    — Kit Walker

    1. Hi Kit,

      Thank you for reading and for continuing to engage the Christian story in a different context. What a joy to know how the Body of Christ is spread out around the world!

      Dios te bendiga,

  6. Thanks, Becca… Great post. We spent the last 4 years co-participating in the exact rhythm that you have laid out here and had the same results. We picked one primary element to focus on each year and strived to live into each Missional element. We didn’t focus on growth or stopping the decline, we focussed our energy on what we believe we were called to….

    1. I think that’s all we can do– try our best to be who God calls us to be. We have to be wise as serpents, using the best practices of visioning, strategy, planning, and execution, but our ultimate focus is to serve God. End of story.

      Well, beginning of story 😉


  7. This is EXACTLY what our own FUMC church here needs to do: focus on and LIVE OUT the mission. Stop counting, start loving more and shining more light out into the community. Thank you for this powerful message of building the Church in the world.

    1. Hi Granbee,

      Blessings to your church as you live out your mission. Easy to say, but hard to do. Still, if people keep drawing one another back to putting their full attention on God and God’s work, over time it becomes a good habit and the culture begins to change.

      God bless,

  8. Great thoughts! As a pastor of a church that is declining, we must be committed to making disciples and the mission of the church. If we are too busy trying to save “the institution,” as you say we will lose it. My hope is that at General Conference we will see a revival of the mission of the church and not a revamping of the chairs.

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